Two of Me

by Lara Aqel (American Univeristy)
THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN TWO OF ME. My life can be summed up with East met West… and agreed to disagree.

I was born in Amman, Jordan in the summer of 1989. By the time the summer of 1994 came around, I was standing over my mom’s shoulder wondering what she was doing unpacking my stuff in a house that was not ours, in a country that was far too green.

My parents are traditional. My friends are not. In the years following 1994, I started to grasp that different things were expected of me at home and outside of it. In third grade, my teacher would tell our class to ‘worry about number one, no one else.’ I remember mentioning that to my parents soon after (they were complaining that I was not taking care of my siblings’ needs well enough when they weren’t home). They looked at me like I was crazy.

I dealt by switching hats when appropriate—at times I was Arab Lara, at others I was American. This difference was never so pronounced as when I was visiting family in Jordan. At least that’s what I thought until I stepped off a bus and onto the soil of a small town in northern Italy—Cagli.

To my surprise, as I passed the townspeople I rarely smiled widely at them or greeted them with a nod—the way American Lara would—but would usually avert my gaze so as to not make uncomfortable eye contact with them.

There were other changes too. I became conscious of being too loud, embarrassed when my clothing would draw top to bottom glances. I felt like I was living in a fishbowl. I had known that feeling before but never when surrounded by Westerners!

Why was I turning into Arab high context Lara here in this picaresque postcard of a town? Maybe I have a subconscious default switch. Maybe it was switched to ‘foreign’ as I stepped off that bus and this was how I knew to react. Or maybe I could sense I was in a patriarchal society. Maybe before I knew the words in Italian, I knew to be very wary of bruta forma— perceived ugliness in behavior.

The bus ride back from Venice last weekend was a cold and long one. An Italian man sat across the aisle from me and three of my friends. In little time, we would come to know that we were sitting next to the Train Nazi. The bitterly withered old Italian man walked up and down the aisle policing our unfortunate train car and berating anyone with the audacity to have their feet—bare or otherwise—on a train seat.

I fell asleep on that train. And to keep me warm, my legs folded up and onto my seat to join the rest of me. The Train Nazi was incensed. I could feel him glaring at me. When I made the mistake of opening my eyes just a slit, he motioned angrily for me to put my feet down immediately.

I know what the American Lara would have done. American Lara would have told the man what her third grade teacher told her so many years ago…

In a stony silence, Arab Lara sat idly by.